Does this NCAA women's basketball tournament have more legitimate contenders for the title than has been the case for many years? It feels like it, and that feeling has been building for months.
The idea this could be an especially intriguing season was readily apparent even before mid-January. By then, we'd had plenty of headline-worthy results. Defending national champion Notre Dame had lost to UConn. Stanford had lost to Gonzaga, but then beat Baylor. Then Baylor had defeated UConn, the Huskies' first regular-season loss since 2014. The Irish defeated rival Louisville, but then later in January would be upset at North Carolina.
No stretch of games better summed up the parity than during Feb. 14-18, when unranked teams beat ranked teams eight times. One of those was Missouri winning at Mississippi State. There also were upsets between ranked teams then, such as Miami over Louisville, Iowa over Maryland and Oregon State over Oregon.
After the Beavers had defeated the Ducks in front of a full house in Corvallis, Oregon -- just three days after having lost to Oregon in Eugene -- Oregon State coach Scott Rueck talked about how different this season felt.
"There are so many great teams, well-coached teams," Rueck said. "Connecticut getting beat (at the Final Four) the last couple of years, that's given a lot of people hope. Not only does that impact the players, it impacts the coaches, too. There is hope. Everybody feels like they have a chance."
Well, maybe not everybody, but several teams can enter the Road to Tampa with confidence they can make it to the end. Certainly, all four No. 1 seeds: Baylor, Notre Dame, Louisville and Mississippi State. And three of the No. 2 seeds -- UConn, Stanford and Oregon -- are dangerous. All seven appear to have the talent to win the national championship.
The fourth No. 2, Iowa, might not have as many who believe the Hawkeyes are a real contender to win it all, but underestimate center Megan Gustafson at your own peril.
And if you're looking for upsets in the earlier rounds, there could be plenty of those, too. That would be a carryover from last season, when there were nine upsets in the first round, four in the second and two in the Sweet 16. All four No. 1 seeds -- UConn, Louisville, Mississippi State and Notre Dame -- made the Final Four last season, but it was the team most plagued by injuries -- the Irish -- that won.
Notre Dame is back this season healthier and deeper, yet not an overwhelming favorite as some might have expected the Irish to be. That doesn't say anything bad about Notre Dame, though, but rather a lot of good about the overall depth at the top of the bracket.
We enter this tournament feeling it might be as wide open as any since 2006, which is also the last time UConn was not a No. 1 seed. The Huskies were a No. 2 then, with the No. 1s being North Carolina, Duke, Ohio State and LSU. None of them won the title, though. It went to No. 2 seed Maryland, which beat the Blue Devils 78-75 in overtime, one of the most exciting women's championship games.
From 2007 to 2018, going into the tournament, you probably couldn't really convince yourself there were as many serious contenders to win it all as there are this year. In 2007 and '08, Candace Parker-led Tennessee won the championship. The Lady Vols weren't a prohibitive favorite either year -- there were still a mix of teams in contention -- but they were high on the list with the best player in the nation.
In 2009 and '10, it was UConn's tournament to lose, and it didn't; the Huskies had two perfect seasons behind Maya Moore and Tina Charles. With Charles gone the next season and UConn finally losing a game -- Stanford ended the Huskies' 90-game winning streak in December 2010 -- the 2011 tournament seemed less like a predictable UConn coronation.
Still, the Huskies were the favorites but were knocked off by Notre Dame in the semifinals. The winner was Texas A&M, a good team but still the biggest surprise winner since Maryland.
In 2012, Brittney Griner-led Baylor came into the tournament as the favorite and finished that way, 40-0. In 2013, the Lady Bears were again most people's top pick, although they then were upset in the Sweet 16 by Louisville.
UConn picked up the mantle again, winning in 2013 and taking the favorite's role going into every tournament since then. The Huskies went 116-1 from the fall of 2013 through the spring of 2016, winning all three NCAA titles.
And even after losing seniors Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, UConn was undefeated entering the 2017 tournament. Mississippi State's Morgan William ended that with an overtime buzzer-beater in the national semifinals. Last year, the Huskies were again unbeaten going into the Big Dance, but they lost their only game in an eerily similar way -- in the semifinals to Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale in the closing seconds of overtime.
The fact that the Huskies are a No. 2 seed this year, even though their only losses were on the road to No. 1 seeds Baylor and Louisville, might actually work in UConn's favor. It's been nearly impossible for quite a while for coach Geno Auriemma to fire up his team to go out and prove people wrong because everyone thought they were always going to win.
Now, though, he can motivate them with a No. 2 seed. And there's also the fact that seniors Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson really want to claim a championship for themselves after being freshmen on the Stewie ship that sailed to the title in 2016.
No. 1 overall seed Baylor, though, also is hungry after missing the Final Four every season since 2012. The Lady Bears have in common with UConn a dominance of their conference; they've won nine of the past 11 Big 12 tournament titles. But for various reasons, including an injury to senior point guard Kristy Wallace last year, the Lady Bears have ended the past several seasons short of their goal.
Notre Dame has three losses, but the Irish learned something from all of them, and they looked very sharp in winning the ACC tournament. Same could be said for Mississippi State, 30-2, in taking the SEC tournament title. Falling to Missouri on Feb. 14 was somewhat of a gift to coach Vic Schaefer because it gave the Bulldogs -- including SEC Player of the Year Teaira McCowan -- a good reminder of how hard they need to play.
As for Louisville, 29-3, the Cardinals had injury issues to Sam Fuehring and Arica Carter in the ACC final, but both are expected back for the NCAA tournament. And they have ACC Player of the Year Asia Durr, of course.
The top two contenders from the Pac-12, No. 2 seeds Oregon (29-4) and Stanford (28-4), split the league's hardware this year. The Ducks were the regular-season champions, but the Cardinal defeated them in the tournament final. That result reversed a 40-point blowout loss to Oregon at Stanford in February. That low point turned into fuel for the Cardinal, who have been to the Final Four 13 times but haven't won a title since they did so in 1990 and '92, a very different era in women's basketball.
Ultimately, we could get a repeat of last season, with the Irish prevailing. Or UConn could get revenge for two semifinal heartbreaks and claim its 12th title. Maybe Baylor gets its third title, or Stanford ends its long drought, or a team like Mississippi State, Louisville, Oregon -- or someone else? -- wins a championship for the first time.
Nothing seems certain, and that's the fun of it.